A tribute to Jan Karski was held on March 18 at Georgetown University, the institution with which Karski was associated for over forty years. The event celebrated the publication of the new US edition of his 1944 classic, “Story of a Secret State” by Georgetown University Press. A distinguished panel of experts discussed Karski's legacy and included former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Polish Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, and Rabbi Harold S. White, formerly Senior Jewish Chaplain at Georgetown University's Campus Ministry.
The auditorium was filled to capacity with former Karski students and colleagues as well as people interested in applying Karski’s moral lessons to the present and the future. Ambassador Schnepf – who knew Karski as a student - spoke of Karski’s teachings of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions.
Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski described Karski as “a man whose entire life was devoted to two overwhelming passions: Poland and the Holocaust." He noted that there were two enemies during WWII – "the Nazis and indifference." When asked about the greatest contribution of the Polish Underground to the war effort, Brzezinski cited the leadership in organizing courts, schools and intelligence operations. He cited the unexploded ballistic missile that members of the Polish Underground informed the British about and were able to get transported to England. “Story of a Secret State” provides on-the-ground details about the operations of the Polish Underground resistance movement, the largest and most significant in occupied Europe.
Rabbi White said that Karski had once said, “I hope Christ will forgive me” for not doing enough. White felt that Karski’s retort to the ethical question, “How can you believe in God after a Holocaust?” was different than Elie Wiesel’s “Where is God?” – Karski’s question was “Where is man?” White likened Karski to a Bibical prophet – humble but noble.
Secretary Albright identified Karski as an early example of the moral “responsibility to protect” concept, which some have suggested as the reason why oppressed peoples, such as those in Syria today, deserve help from the West. Brzezinski mentioned the “moral obligation to be engaged” in troubled areas of the world, including the Middle East.
A friend of Karski’s from before the Second World War, 101-year-old Walter Zachariasiewicz, was in the audience; he stated that “Karski became a hero to me.” Robert Billingsley described his former professor as “the real James Bond,” a blend of an idealist and a pragmatist, who influenced thousands of Georgetown students. He noted that Karski was 24 - 25 years old at the time of his heroism, and challenged students of the same age to heroism of their own. Paul Tagliabue, Chairman of Georgetown's board of directors, suggested developing an online class on the moral and policy implications of Karski's actions.
Dean Carol Lancaster of the School of Foreign Service moderated the discussion and called Karski's book “engaging.” The heroic story “tells you something about the Polish people,” she said. She said she couldn't put it down and read it straight through in 18 hours. In addition to the fascinating panel discussion, many copies of the new edition of the book were sold, allowing Karski’s story to be passed on to new readers.
Video of the entire event can be seen at http://www.georgetown.edu/webcasts/a-tribute-to-jan-karski.html. A transcript of the event is available at the bottom of this story.
Photos, left to right, first row: the panel with a backdrop of the book cover; Rabbi White; Jan Karski Educational Foundation President Wanda Urbanska asks a question; former US Ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein with Urbanska and Eugeniusz Smolar; Zachariasiewicz with Albright; second row: Tagliabue; Brzezinski being interviewed by the press; Billingsley challenges young people in the audience; Albright and Urbanska. (Photos courtesy of Bozena Zaremba, Jane Robbins, Gerry Chiaruttini and Rafael Suanes (c) of Georgetown University.)